Film #17 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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For many children, there comes a point where the old cliche of running away and joining the circus becomes the dream. Living under the big top, eating all the candy you want and becoming a clown sounds exciting to a kid but none ever do it. It’s as realistic a dream as cowboy astronaut or ninja master but Buster Keaton was the child clown. He didn’t run away to join the circus, he was born into it.
Joseph Keaton was the sixth generation of males in his family bearing that name but it didn’t last long. At the age of 18 months old, young Joseph fell down a flight of stairs without a scratch and Harry Houdini exclaimed “That’s a real buster!” (buster meaning a fall intended to cause serious injury) Is the story true? Well, to quote the film The Man who shot Liberty Valance:
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
And so with that tumble, Buster Keaton was born.
As a child performer, part of the routine would be him pretending to disobey his father and his father getting progressively angrier to the point of him picking up the lad chucking him against scenery, into the orchestra pit, or even into the audience. They even sewed suitcase handles into Buster’s clothing to make it easier to toss his ass into shit.
He was as young as three years old when this happened.
Now you may be thinking “I know the old timey days were fucked up but didn’t they have any kind of child protective laws? I mean it’s not like Buster was black or anything.” And you would be correct. And racist.
There was so many allegations of child abuse, that the father was constantly under threat of arrest but Buster always proved to the cops that he suffered no injuries from his dangerous stunts.
Which in turn had the press bill him as “The Little Boy Who Can’t Be Damaged” and the act “The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.” This made the act even more dangerous. But Buster never accused his father of abuse. He loved entertaining the crowds and learned at a very early age how to convincingly execute a pratfall.
“The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It’s a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I’d have been killed if I hadn’t been able to land like a cat.”
He also realized that if he laughed during the routine, it would generate less laughs from the audience, so he adopted a stoic stoneface that, well, I don’t wanna jump t ahead but suffice it to say, it kinda becomes important later on.
He stayed with The Three Keatons for twenty years until his father’s penchant for drinking started to destroy the act, so he left for New York and almost immediately transitioned into film.
Well not exactly immediately, I mean if this was a biopic, that’s what would happen but there was that major war that he and the entire world were in at the time but I’m just gonna gloss over that. He lost some hearing because of an infection. There. I covered the most significant thing that happened to him in the war.
In 1917, at the age of 22, Buster Keaton met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and it would change his life forever. Now most of you know Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and think of them as the great silent film comedians and you’d be correct but there was a time where “Fatty” Arbuckle was the “it” actor. He mentored Chaplin and discovered Keaton and Bob Hope and was the highest paid star of the time. He was a huge deal. Accusations of rape murder destroyed his career but that’s a story for another time.
Keaton and Arbuckle immediately hit off and made 14 short films together. The first of which was The Butcher Boy.
They worked together until Arbuckle’s career was effectively destroyed by those rape murder accusations I previously mentioned.
Keaton’s first starring role was in the 1920 comedy The Saphead. It was a success and based on that and Keaton’s bankability from the Keaton/Arbuckle shorts, Joseph M. Schenck (Big deal film executive) gave him his own production studio. That sounds crazy to the younger generation but that’s how these films were made back in the day. The star would write, direct and obviously star in these films and they had a quota, so they were cranking them out constantly. Like an assembly line of comedy.
Keaton made a number of shorts but then turned his attention to full length feature films. These included Three Ages, Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr, The Navigator, Seven Chances, Go West, Battling Butler and the film you’re all waiting to read about: The General.
All of those films were massive successes and Keaton wanted his next film to be epic in scale. He took his life long love of trains and decided to stage an entire film in or around a train. The train was going to be the main thrust of the narrative and all the stunts were going to involve trains. He landed on the true story of The Great Locomotive Chase that was an event that happened during the American Civil War.
With a story in place and a budget of 750,000 dollars (That’s over 10 million dollars adjusted for inflation) Buster got to work on his masterpiece.
The story is about a train engineer named Johnnie Gray (Keaton) who has only two loves in his life, his Fiancée and his train. (The train is named The General. You would be forgiven to think Keaton was the general of the story but it’s the train.) When the Civil War breaks out, Johnnie desperately wants to enlist but is rejected due to being deemed to important in his current occupation. But due to dramatic shenanigans, he isn’t told why he’s rejected. He sees his fiancée and her father in line and refuses to join them. She calls him a coward and will not speak with him until he’s in a uniform. This is a silent film but the characters in it still talk, I’m just saying the plot of this film would’ve ended right there if he told them he was rejected or if they told him why he was rejected. Ain’t nobody telling nobody nuff’n.
A year passes and Annabelle (Johnnie’s Fiancée) is informed that her father has been wounded during the war. She boards The General (Title drop) to see him. She’s still giving Johnnie the silent treatment though because she’s a damn baby and Johnnie deserves better. He has a train woman, I don’t care what time you’re living in, that’s fancy. But whatever. You do you Johnnie.
Union spies board the train and immediately hijack it with Annabelle on board. The film becomes a race against time with Johnnie trying to not only save his fiancée but single handedly stop the spies from reaching their destination.
As you can see from the clips, the film perfectly weaves his perfect comedic timing with huge stunts. It’s amazingly well choreographed. The time and dedication it would take to nail the scene where he’s clearing the tracks of debris is awe inspiring. The man was a genius. He would look at any part of the train and instantly come up with a gag. It has some of the greatest gags committed to celluloid and the most impressive stunts recorded at the time. He poured his heart and soul into the film.
And it bombed.
It was a catastrophic failure that was panned critically and didn’t connect with audiences. The film lost the studio so much money, Buster was never allowed creative freedom over a film ever again. He never stopped making films but with the exception of The Cameraman, they were no where near as good as his previous films.
His signature paleface was no longer a persona. There were no more laughs from the ageing clown and audiences didn’t care about him or The General. He became dangerously close to fading into obscurity but around the 1960’s, forty years after The General debuted, it and Keaton got a sudden critical revaluation. The film was finally hailed as a masterpiece and critics declared Keaton “The greatest silent comic of all time.”
The inaugural year of The National Film Registry by The Library of Congress, it was selected for preservation along with such classics as Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and Snow White and the seven Dwarfs.
In Sight and Sound’s poll of The Greatest Films of all Time, The General ranked #8 in 1972, #10 in 1982, and #34 in 2012.
The General finally got the respect it deserves and Buster lived long enough to see it happen.
Silent cinema is one of my favorite film genres; especially the comedies. The ability to not only tell a story with no dialogue-and in the case of Buster-very little title cards and concoct gags that everyone, regardless of age or nationality can instantly understand, is incredible to me. It’s like watching a wizard cast a spell without words.
I believe the cinema is magic and there was no better wizard than Buster Keaton and his greatest spell was The General.